Virginia budget process draws to a close

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell vetoed part of the General Assembly’s state spending plan and declared another section unconstitutional Monday as an especially contentious budget process finally drew to a close.

McDonnell (R) vetoed a provision in the budget that would have prevented some surplus funds from being used for transportation. He also struck what he said was an unconstitutional measure related to the Federal Action Contingency Trust (FACT) fund, a rainy day fund to prepare for potentially large federal cuts.

“I am sure that many members of the General Assembly would agree that the process for reaching conclusion on the budget was lengthy and difficult,” McDonnell said in a statement issued after he signed the two-year, $85 billion state budget plan.

“The core fiscal objectives I outlined in the introduced budget last December have been accomplished, and much progress was made in funding for public education, higher education, economic development, health and human resources, as well as reform of the retirement system,” he said.

The state budget had been delayed by partisan wrangling over Senate committee assignments and funding for a project to extend Metrorail to Dulles International Airport.

In the end, the Democrats abandoned their effort to use the budget as a bargaining chip for more committee power in the chamber, with November’s elections left evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. Democrats also lost their bid for $300 million for the Dulles rail project in April, when Sen. Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William) voted with Republicans to break the budget stalemate.

The General Assembly went along with some of McDonnell’s biggest budget priorities, including boosting K-12 and higher education by more than $880 million and pouring about $2 billion into the underfunded retirement system for state employees. But it rebuffed him on a plan to divert more general-fund revenue toward transportation.

McDonnell made more than 100 amendments to the General Assembly’s budget plan. When legislators returned to Richmond last month, they went along with $19.5 million in economic development funding that he had added, giving the man who’d campaigned on the slogan “Bob’s for Jobs!” a victory on his marquee issue.

But they soundly defeated 31 of his amendments — more than even the most veteran lawmakers could recall.

On Monday, McDonnell had the last word, with two final changes that the General Assembly will not have the chance to undo.

The first concerns how much of the state surplus can be spent on transportation. For about the past five years, state law dictated that only two-thirds of state surplus funds could be used for transportation. This year, the General Assembly passed a bill allowing the remaining third to be tapped for one-time transportation projects.

After McDonnell signed that into law, budget conferees added language to again put the remaining one-third of the surplus off limits to transportation. McDonnell’s veto restores the state’s right to use the one-third for transportation.

The other change pertains to the FACT fund, which amounts to $30 million and could reach $50 million by fiscal 2014. The General Assembly had sought to restrict the governor’s ability to distribute money from the fund without approval from the FACT Fund Approval Commission. McDonnell said that provision was unconstitutional because FACT fund expenditures fall within the purview of the executive branch.

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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